Everyone wants to experience a little bit of March magic when they are growing up.
Many young basketball fans dream of making a Cinderella run with a chance at an elusive championship trophy.
Brady Paulus is living that dream out — even if unexpected.
As captain and vice president of Bryant men’s club basketball, he is an integral member of a first-year team that will compete in the 2022 National Club Basketball Association men’s national championship.
Only three games from glory, the Cinderella story of men’s club basketball is on an unlikely run with an unlikely captain.
Late to the Game
Paulus grew up in West Hartford, Connecticut and never felt he quite had the height to really go anywhere as a basketball player. He chose to focus on track and field where he was a jumper for Conard High School. Then a growth spurt hit and, with his already impressive jumping ability, he realized he would have a chance to compete. By his junior year of high school, Paulus could dunk.
“I was a small kid,” Paulus said. “It wasn’t something that I thought would be in my realm.”
That was not quite enough to make Paulus a superstar. He played in his local recreation league — providing some good competition — which helped him work on his ability to play with a team, a rarity as a track and field star and frequent skier.
Paulus did have the advantage of being a huge basketball fan, spending hours after school in his driveway getting shots up and working on his vertical jump, setting personal challenges for himself. Even when not on a typical team, Paulus developed his jumping ability and overall play style.
“It was something I wanted to do for myself,” Paulus said. “I was always passionate about the highlights and the top plays that I'd see on ESPN top-10 and in the NBA. It was something that I wanted to try to recreate on my own.”
Before enrolling at Bryant, Paulus was recruited by Division-II Stonehill for track and field, but did not see himself taking on the brutal lifestyle of a full-time athlete. Bryant University — in nearby Smithfield, Rhode Island — gave him more flexibility and a well-rounded experience.
But It did not take long for Paulus to miss sports.
His first thought was to look for a club team, though he was not sure what that would even look like. After hearing about the experience of his cousin on Xavier’s club baseball team, he was interested in a similar path.
Club sports differ at every university and when Paulus joined as a freshman, it was more of a student organization, where members of the team would play pick-up games.
He quickly took to the people on the club team and, after two years, they decided to take the next step and join the NCBBA.
“We just played pick up all the time and saw our skills and wanted to take it to a higher level. So that's what we did,” Paulus said. “We were lucky enough to get into this league and here we are [about to] be playing in our first national championship game.”
Growing at Bryant
Paulus said he and his teammates still had plenty of work to be ready for a step up in competition. The NCBBA was not just like a pick-up game.
“We do have something to lose,” Paulus said. “Not just bragging rights anymore.”
The Bulldogs took to the league fairly quickly, with five wins in their first six games. Paulus said that the players all bring a little something different. Expectations may have been low to begin the inaugural campaign, but Paulus said the team learned lessons from every game.
And the drive to get better personally was still present as well so when the Bryant Division I women’s team needed men for its practice squad, Paulus said he was hesitant at first, but eventually joined and brought along four close friends.
“It's good to get up and stay active and start the day right early in the morning. So I'm just glad that I joined that and met the people that I did,” he said.
That helped him build strong connections, including one with his head coach on the men’s club team, Haley Connors. She is also director of basketball operations for the Bryant women’s team and played for the Bulldogs from 2015 to 2019.
Connors has worked closely with and watched Paulus play in both facets and said she admires his passion and commitment.
“Brady is such a big part of our team,” Connors said. “His energy and positive attitude are contagious. His speed and athleticism add another layer both on the offensive and defensive sides of the floor.”
Even though Paulus loves the highlight plays, he is not a score-first type of player. His willingness to share the ball and make smart plays brings value beyond the numbers.
“Brady’s play style is great,” junior guard Henry Papadopoulos said. “It’s a bit unconventional but that’s what makes it special. He’s a freak athlete and plays very fast paced, energetic and strong basketball which fits perfectly into our team and the way we play.”
When it came time for the New England Regional Tournament — with a spot in the national championship on the line — expectations were arguably quelled. Bryant was the No. 7 seed, so hardly a heavy favorite.
“It was a little overwhelming because this was a big moment for all of us,” Paulus said. “We all got to the gym and it was like ‘Alright, we're here, let's make it happen.’”
And so they did, starting with a 63-60 win over No. 2 UConn. With every win, Bryant grew more confident.
“I think the regional tournament is where we found out how good we really were as a team,” Papadopoulos said. “We ran a kind of tight ship through the tournament which created a slightly different dynamic for the team, but Brady’s… leadership as well as optimism really helped us.”
Faced with a new opponent in Albany, Papadopoulos said that Paulus’ leadership shined. After the Bulldogs lost a double-digit lead, Paulus galvanized the team to a spot in the championship game against Boston College, which had been the No. 1 team in the Phenom Elite Top 20 poll since early February and a heavy, heavy favorite to win it all.
Then March magic struck.
A gritty 84-82 win earned Bryant the trophy and a berth to the tournament. Paulus said the memory that has stuck with him the most since the tourney win was the final section of the game against the Eagles.
When it came to clutch time, Bryant was steamrolling ahead with no intentions of stopping.
“The last part of that half really showcased the level that we've reached,” Paulus said. “I don't think [Boston College] or even the league was expecting us to walk away with that win.”
With a chance at a NCBBA national title in their sites, this is about more than this tournament for the Bulldogs, but about growing the sport at Bryant even further and establishing the club team as a place people know about, care about and want to be.
“It's really big for the school too, because as we start to create this resume for club basketball at Bryant,” Paulus said. “It'll draw more attention from kids at school that are a little more sheltered and might be really good basketball players but not fully sold on playing at the club level.”
College Basketball Times has a "pick the winners" game for the Men's and Women's NCBBA Club Tournaments. Play for free here: https://www.collegebasketballtimes.com/cbtncbbatourneygame Deadline: Midnight, Thursday, April 21.
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